Sibling relationships have the potential to be enduring and loving – but often go very wrong. Anna Moore pinpoints common flashpoints and ways to stop them turning into feuds.
Our sibling relationship is a connection unlike any other. It’s intimate, intense; a lifelong bond fraught with love and hate, jealousy and admiration, irritation and empathy. We start in the same place – in the same family with the same chances – and sometimes our lives follow spookily similar paths. More often, though, we diverge wildly, with different careers, new partners and differing views, which can cause family rifts. Yet siblings are our anchor points, our memory-keepers, and research shows that close relationships improve our health and happiness, which is why Relate now offers sibling therapy for those who are struggling. So what are the challenges faced by siblings at each life stage and what steps can you take to resolve them?
Me, me, me
The Darwinian struggle for our parents’ love, time and attention is programmed into us. ‘It’s normal and natural,’ says clinical psychologist Linda Blair, author of Siblings. Issues can flare over who is cleverer, more attractive, who has more friends – and who the parents love most. ‘What counts in the early years is how parents react,’ says Blair. ‘If handled badly, it can damage the sibling relationship for years to come.’ This is what Sarah, 43, fears. She has two daughters, Charlotte, ten, and Chloe, 11. Chloe is more academic, sporty and outgoing than Charlotte, who seems resentful of her sister’s
achievements. ‘They’re hugely competitive,’ says Sarah. ‘I think Charlotte feels she can’t match up even though she has other talents – she’s much more creative but constantly judges herself against her sister. They wind each other up bicker, scream. What upsets me is that I see no signs of love between them at all.’
What to do
- Acknowledge differences: As a parent, recognise, praise and nurture your children’s different strengths and talents – resist the common trap of signing them up to the same activities or expecting them to take the same path.
- Initiate discussion: ‘Treat sibling arguments as opportunities to teach them how to sort out their problems,’ says Blair. ‘Encourage them to listen to one another by being a role model and listening fully to them yourself. Ask one to guess how the other is feeling: “Why do you think your sister is upset?”’ Take regular opportunities to talk through the small things – at family meals, on car journeys or a last chat before lights out. ‘Nurturing the ability to sense what the other needs is so important for a good, lasting relationship.’
- Encourage cooperation: Devise ways for siblings to collaborate rather than compete: ‘bonding over the shared care of a pet, making a family meal together or camping in the garden,’ suggests Blair. Childhood adventures are gold dust; studies show that shared positive memories are key for a close sibling relationship in adulthood.
- Establish family traditions: ‘Don’t worry if siblings seem distant in their teen years,’ adds Blair. ‘It’s when they turn away from family to focus on their peers. Establish a few traditions where you come together, such as having pizza on a Wednesday night. They may moan, but in the long run, they’ll be glad.’
Oscar-winning sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland had a notorious rivalry. Olivia called Joan ‘dragon lady’, and Joan remarked: ‘Olivia says I am first at everything. I got married first, got an Oscar first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious, because I’ll have got there first!’ Joan died in 2013, aged 96; Olivia is 101.
The Lost Boys
This is a key decade for siblings. ‘It’s when our paths start diverging,’ says psychotherapist Christine Webber. Some might go away to university while others stay at home. You choose different careers, start having serious partners whom the others may not like. ‘When your siblings make different life choices, it’s easy to say, “We’ve got nothing in common.” But if you drift apart now, it can be very hard to reconnect,’ Webber warns. Rachel, 25, has a twin sister and a brother who is 28. ‘My brother has done his own thing, got a job at the other end of the country and is living with a girlfriend we’ve not met. He barely communicates with us and I worry we’re becoming strangers. With my sister, it’s the opposite: it’s too intense. There is competition over who is making the best life, with a boyfriend and a career. When we were younger my sister wanted to work in fashion, but she has ended up in sales, making money in a soulless job. Her boyfriend is fixated on income and possessions; I can’t stand him. I’m building my dream career working with animals, which means I have much less money, and at the moment I’m single. We’re living different lives. I feel she’s judging me and I’m probably judging her. We’re less connected than ever.’
What to do
- Forge a new bond: ‘Make the effort to meet for a drink or visit each other and focus on what you have in common,’ says Webber. ‘Aim to build a new kind of relationship that’s
independent of parents and partners – if Rachel can’t stand her sister’s boyfriend, could she see her sister alone? Instead of focusing on everything she disapproves of, can she concentrate on what she loves about her sister? Those qualities will still be there.’
- Form a sibling group text or Facebook page: So you can share ups and downs, family jokes, important reminders. That way siblings such as Rachel’s brother who don’t tend to respond, can at least see what’s going on.
- Be a touchstone: ‘One of the best ways of remembering who you are is through a sibling,’ says Blair. ‘They know what you loved as a child, what you wanted when you were most yourself – before pressure and busyness kicked in.’Gentle ‘remember whens’ are an important touchstone for siblings whose life choices have taken them in surprising directions.
- Forget past grievances: If you hold grudges from childhood, view entry into adulthood as a chance to wipe the slate clean. If a sibling made you feel like a failure in the early years, accept that it may be because of how you were parented rather than anything they did. ‘Understand how family dynamics affected you,’ says Blair. ‘If you’re stuck in “she did that” thought cycles, try to see your siblings as others do. Acknowledge that they have grown up and treat them with respect, not as annoying children from your memory.’
Noel, 50, and Lliam Gallagher, 45, have been at loggerheads for years. On The Graham Norton Show last year Liam said, ‘We don’t like each other,’ while Noel has suggested that Liam ‘needs to see a psychiatrist’.
This is when money and lifestyle differences can really start having an impact. Your sibling’s choice of partner can affect the family dynamic and there can be competition
over whose children are the highest achieving or most loved by grandparents. Liz, 37, a full-time mother-of-three, resents her younger sister, who is married to a wealthy husband. ‘It’s impossible to walk into her home without feeling horrible about my life,’ she says. ‘She married money – she’s also brilliant and creative and lives in the sort of home you see on Grand Designs. I’m living in a two-up, two-down, dreaming about maybe one day being able to afford a loft conversion. Her children have private education, music lessons and tutors, and she expects us to celebrate their every achievement. Distinction on the violin; top in maths. I’ve never resented her as much as I do now.’
What to do
- Remember the grass isn’t always greener: ‘When you’re feeling envious, remind yourself that you don’t see the true picture,’ says Webber. Liz knows only how her sister’s life appears from the outside; she doesn’t understand how it feels to be her. In reality, having a largely absent partner who works long hours to pay the mortgage, coupled with the pressures of keeping her home pristine or children achieving ‘as expected’, could be making her miserable.
- Don’t compare your children: Children grow up, ditch the violin, succeed here, fail there, sometimes marry, sometimes divorce. ‘In the long run, measuring yourselves through your children is meaningless,’ says Blair. If one set of children is getting more attention from grandparents than another, don’t see it as evidence of greater affection: it’s more likely to reflect where the grandparents feel most needed or what’s convenient for them.
- Know your triggers: ‘If you feel uncomfortable in your sister’s palatial home, meet for lunch elsewhere,’ advises Webber. ‘Be realistic about time spent together. Keep it to a few hours rather than a long weekend. If you feel a sibling is bragging, don’t get drawn in. Listen, praise, then change the subject.’
When singer Olly Murs, 33, chose The X Factor over his twin brother Ben’s wedding in 2009 they fell out. Olly said: ‘Every artist has something against them. Mine was my brother.’ Ben has said, ‘I don’t care about the star Olly Murs. I want to know my brother.’
Similarly, Dame Joan Collins says that she and her sister, the late novelist Jackie Collins, did not always see eye to eye. Joan, 84, reveals, ‘I was going out with somebody she loathed and he didn’t like her so we didn’t spend a lot of time together. But this happens.’
FORTIES AND FIFTIES
Family responsibilities and care of elderly parents can be hugely divisive. Studies show that in 40 percent of cases, there’s a single primary caregiver who feels unsupported by other siblings. ‘Watching your parents decline is emotional and painful,’ says psychotherapist Wendy Bristow. ‘Add to this the relentless practical demands and financial decisions involved, and it’s hardly surprising many sibling relationships break down under the strain.’ Laura, 54, visits her 90-year-old mother, who has dementia, daily. She feels ‘saddled’ with the responsibility because she lives nearest, has no young children or full-time job and sees herself as the ‘least successful’ of her three siblings. But they take a different view. ‘They think I’m the “favourite” and that I’ve always been closest to my parents,’ says Laura. ‘My brother accused me of blocking them out. That left me dumbfounded.’
What to do
- Accept that each of you views the situation differently ‘When siblings fall out over parental care, there could be a lifetime of issues bubbling below the surface,’ says Bristow. ‘Usually, no one is entirely right or wrong. Though you may never be able to agree over your parents’ care, the one thing you can do is try hard not to allow it to destroy your relationship. Remember you may all be acting differently for the right reasons. Laura may feel it’s important to spend as much time as possible with her mother, but her siblings may believe their mother wouldn’t have wanted them to sacrifice their lives for visits she won’t remember.’ You can only do what you feel to be
right – and have only yourself to answer to.
- Where you can, plan together ‘If one of you needs help from the other siblings, ask for
it. Don’t be a martyr or sulk and complain when they don’t offer. Stay in regular contact and find ways for everyone to contribute,’ says Bristow. Perhaps one person can take on the financial planning or do the medical research from a distance while another gives hands-on care.
- Acknowledge everyone’s contribution ‘Praise each other for whatever help each sibling provides, however small,’ says Blair. You’re approaching a time when you’ll have only each other to link you to your past – try to keep the bond intact.
Julia Roberts, 50, fell out with her brother, actor Eric, 62, over his drug and alcohol abuse. They were estranged for several years until the birth of her twins in 2004. Eric says: ‘I was exhausting to be around. Everyone in my world needed a break, and that must have included Julia.’
THE LATE DECADES
Where There’s A Will…
We might expect the death of a parent to bring a family together, but often the opposite happens. Siblings fall out over funeral arrangements, the will, the family home… ‘Losing a parent is enormous,’ says Bristow, ‘and at the same time, you have to make family decisions and do more joint organising than you’ve probably ever done in your lives.’ Other
flashpoints can be the death of a sibling’s partner or divorce. Sarah, 62, has not spoken to her sisters following the loss of their mother. ‘We were devastated when she died as we were close to her, but not to each other,’ says Sarah, a lecturer. ‘Our father had died two years previously so we had to work out what to do with the family home and possessions. Every item had an emotional connection. The process took a year with many disagreements. I’ve not been in touch since.
What to do
- Nurture the relationship: ‘Often it’s the parents who keep siblings in touch, so after they’ve died, you no longer have that connection to fall back on,’ says Webber. Make more effort to contact each other of your own accord. Gestures such as phoning for a chat, offers of help and a letter count for a lot. Create a group text or Facebook page if you haven’t already got one, and arrange get-togethers to keep you bonded.
- Build bridges: ‘If you’ve fallen out over money or care of a parent, look at your own role in the rift as honestly as you can,’ says Webber. ‘Stop trying to prove you were right.’ If you want to move the relationship forward, offer an olive branch. ‘It could be a Christmas card, or just picking up the phone to say you’re sorry for what happened, you
miss them and could you meet for a coffee? Your siblings will inevitably experience difficult times in later life with redundancy, illness or bereavement. Stepping in with a genuine offer of help and support can be a way to reconnect.’ It’s worth persevering: one study showed that being close to a sibling in old age boosts wellbeing more than a good relationship with a friend or adult children.
- Appreciate the uniqueness of family: ‘Years pass, marriages fail, partners die, friends move away,’ says Webber. ‘As we age, we think more about the past than the future, and it’s an enormous comfort to be with the person who knew you before life got complicated – who was there before you married, before you were a mother or a chief executive – and remembers your old bedroom, your first pet, that camping holiday when you were ten. It’s a very strong link. No one knows us better than a sibling.’
Madonna, 59, has a rocky relationship with her brother Christopher, 57. They were estranged after his explosive 2008 bestseller about her, but eventually made up. Last year he said he could write another book about how ‘horrific’ she is but is choosing not to.
Politician Ed Miliband, 48, was accused of knifing his brother David, 52, in the back when he defeated him in the 2010 Labour leadership contest. Two years ago Ed said: ‘As time passes it becomes easier.’
Sibling therapy – can it help?
Natasha, 35, a teacher, attended sibling therapy with her sister Chloe, 34. She says: ‘My sister and I have always been really close and really competitive. There’s less than a year between us and we don’t have other siblings. However, in our 20s we drifted apart. We were both busy establishing careers and I was also in a relationship and have since got married. I probably had less time for my sister than she did for me – I think Chloe, who is single, found it harder than I did. She was very prickly and I knew that she wasn’t happy, but I couldn’t seem to mend things. She started having therapy, then asked me if I’d have a session with her. I didn’t hesitate; it was a chance to reconnect. ‘First, I went to see the therapist alone and told her how I felt. Then we had a two-hour session together. It was weird – like we were on a TV show – but looking back it was a pivotal moment. We had to listen to one another without interruption and there was a truly objective person – rather
than our mum or dad – to mediate. My sister was able to say she felt neglected, frozen out. I told her why I found it difficult when we were together. At the end of the session, the therapist asked us both what we would like to happen next and we went away with ideas about how to improve our relationship. It was exhausting but helpful. I want my sister in my life and for her to be happy. Now we try to do one thing a week together, such as see a film or an exhibition. It’s good to know we can go back for another therapy session if we need to.’